The Early Swell

William Dick is a physicist and a sailor who spent most of his career in the Irish whiskey business. During the early 1990s, he became interested in escalating environmental issues, and set up a consultancy focusing on environmental impact, biomass and the future of energy. Combining this expertise and his physics background with a realisation that fossil fuels were becoming problematic – plus tough experience in small yachts in the North Atlantic ? it is little wonder that he latched onto the idea of capturing energy from ocean waves. In 1999, he founded Wavebobä‹¢, an alternative energy firm intent on capturing the ‘blue power’ of the sea.

Preparing the Voyage

But turning the idea of harnessing the ocean’s relentless energy into commercial power is a big, complicated and resource-intensive job. The ocean is a hostile environment presenting a host of challenges to delivering a reliable, scalable and cost-effective alternative to burning fossil fuels. Together with CEO Andrew Parish, Dick had to find the money, people, companies and technologies necessary to assemble a complete solution.

Careful Crew Selection

“A popular first stop for an entrepreneur with a big idea is the financier. A venture capitalist or a banker,”ù explains Parish. “We made up our minds early on that we would take a different tack. In order to maintain control over our own destiny for as long as possible, we proactively sought funding partners who share a business interest in what we are doing. Not only would our incentives be aligned with these partners, but they would also understand our technology, our timelines, our financial requirements, and probably most important, the challenges we face.”ù

Charting a Parallel Course

For Wavebobä‹¢, this meant building relationships with core technology researchers such as universities and commercial labs, as well as firms in the oil and gas industry, firms with expertise in electrical utilities and renewable energy, and even marine defence specialists who might help Wavebobä‹¢ with the durability of marine energy devices. The strategy appeared appealing, as it promised to bring the expertise of diverse and larger organizations to inexpensively accelerate development at the nascent Wavebobä‹¢, but where to start?

A Chance Encounter at Sea

Perhaps the luck of the Irish, Wavebobä‹¢ won an award in 2006 for their novel technology. At the Art of Innovation, an Engineers Ireland seminar where the awards were presented, they got talking with people from Intel, who had received similar recognition. It turned out both teams were working on long distance wireless networking, with Wavebobä‹¢ focused on communication over water. Both teams realized that Intel’s Wifi and WiMax project was exactly what Wavebobä‹¢ needed to control arrays of energy generating buoys, and a collaborative relationship was formed.

The Cresting Wave

Building on the Intel partnership, Wavebobä‹¢ has since announced strategic relationships with Chevron in oil and gas, and with Vattenfall in electric utilities and renewables, bringing technology, expertise and funding to the venture. “It’s easy to be intimidated as a startup working with such impressive players,”ù reflects Parish. “But I quickly came to the conclusion that in a new market, companies of any size can come to the table and interact as peers, because both have something to offer and something to gain.”ù And Wavebobä‹¢ is certainly gaining momentum. With their third sea trials about to start and plans to double staff in the next 8-10 months, they might just be the next wave in alternative energy.

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Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Nick Dew, assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Publication:
British Airways Business Life
Author(s):
Stuart Read